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Guest Conductor Nicholas McGegan

Abigail Levis, Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Nicholas McGegan, TSO

Photo credit: Jag Gundu

Toronto Concert Reviews in Toronto

Isaiah Bell, Mendelssohn Choir, Nicholas McGegan, TSO; Photo credit: Jag Gundu


Review by David Richards
Toronto ON December 19th 2016

If you want this to be the year that you attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah, you can’t do any better than the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s performances this week with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and four stellar soloists. The first of five performances yesterday was greeted with boundless enthusiasm. Guest conductor Nicholas McGegan injected a fresh energy into the work that I didn’t think possible. The good news is that it runs all this week through Friday at Roy Thomson Hall (no concert Thursday). And if yesterday’s performance was any indication, tickets will be in high demand.

McGegan’s Messiah uses a baroque sized orchestra with sufficient strings to give a lush orchestral sound and original instrumentation including harpsichord, organ, two oboes, two trumpets, and timpani. From the opening Sinfonia, there was something different about the familiar music. The orchestra responded to McGegan’s robust tempos, literally dancing through the fugal section. This was to be no sombre affair.

McGegan is no stranger to either Handel or Baroque opera. The British harpsichordist, flautist, conductor and early music expert who is renowned in Britain and throughout Europe, has revived close to twenty of Handel’s operas. Nevertheless, his style is not that of an inflexible historically oriented practitioner. McGegan’s approach to yesterday’s performance was to bring out the joy of the music and to let the words come through and sparkle with all of their meaning. The orchestra, choir and soloists all responded with enthusiastic performances. Some of the orchestral ornamentation was simplified and dynamics expanded in both directions to create contrasts that are rarely heard.

Each of the soloists delivered stunning performances. They sang directly to every member of the audience. Tenor Isaiah Bell opened with a reassuring “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…” He was at his best in the series of recitatives and airs in Part Two in which he depicted the deep sorrow and grief around the crucifixion. Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch performed one of the most memorable airs in the work “The trumpet shall sound…”, with musical dexterity and a tonal richness that gave voice to a convincing announcement of the day of rapture. American Mezzo-soprano Abigail Levis was magnificent in the pitiful air “He was despised and rejected of men…” She demonstrated why she is on the cusp of a great career. Next week, she heads off to Berlin for an extended engagement with Deutsche Oper Berlin. The Russian-American soprano Yulia Van Doren sang her role as convincingly as one could ever imagine. The lyrical beauty of her voice matched her joyful approach to the performance. She sang the air “I know that my redeemer liveth…“ with conviction and delight.

The orchestra was in great form. The strings blended their sound. Keyboard player Patricia Krueger was magnificent on both the organ and the harpsichord. Trumpet soloist Steve Woomert shone in his famed solo, “The trumpet shall sound”.

Nevertheless, the star of this performance was the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir itself. Adapting to a guest conductor, it sang with precision, power, balance and conviction. It proved once again that one hundred and twenty-five voices can be as flexible as the best trained chamber choir.

​This is Toronto Concert Review’s final concert review of 2016. Jeff, Jan and I want to wish our readers a wonderful holiday season. We look forward to passing on our passion for great live music in 2017. Our next concert to be reviewed will be Music Toronto’sChamber Music Downtown series concert with pianist Sean Chen at the St. Lawrence Centre on January 10th at 8pm.